New Music Tuesday: 'House of Balloons' by The Weeknd
“House of Balloons”
4 out of 5 stars
Seduction seems both the dominant theme and purpose of modern R&B, at least the kind of modern R&B that makes any money. It’s become a staid cash cow during the last 20 years, with few artists straying from the standardized formula: a silky, provocative singer, gentle guitar strumming and uninspired, deep bass beat. That is until three weeks ago when a group of Canadians provided the menacing shot in the arm the genre has long needed.
It was then that mysterious Toronto R&B project The Weeknd released its mixtape “House of Balloons” as a free download, its morbid tone and wobbly early-dubstep synthesizers suggesting R&B’s resurgence as an artistic medium. Impressively, “House of Balloons” retains the genre’s all-important let’s-get-it-on aspect, though the unsettling beats and vivid lyrical imagery suggest something more menacing than your run-of-the-mill, candlelit encounter with the girlfriend or wife. The Weeknd are clearly more interested in girls with “20 pills in ‘em” as they say on the mixtape’s penultimate track, “Loft Music.”
Abel Tesfaye’s soprano register isn’t anything more sinister than The-Dream’s glitzy vocals slowed down, but the thudding Phil Collins-style drums and foreboding lyrics suggest he’s at the center of an evil merry-go-round of party drugs and groupie sex. The band’s dark agenda is laid out at the very beginning of the first track “High For This” — “You don’t know/what’s in store/but you know what you need for.” It’s a hazy, narcotic environment the band don’t just dwell in; it appears to thrive.
If ever there were a song recorded to soundtrack a party fueled by cocaine, “Glass Table Girls” is it. Tesfaye’s (and that of the project’s other contributors) relative anonymity leads one to wonder whether the song is fact or fiction. It lends to the mixtape’s ominous, leering tone.
The entire project sounds like a woozy, subdued R&B take on Beach House, with more provocative, disturbing lyrics than shoegazey ones. If this is where R&B’s going, then the genre’s certainly innovating for the better, if more explicit.
— Matt Carney/The Daily